Who’s calling? H&R MFRC fields puzzling phone calls about COVID-19 vaccine

By Joanie Veitch,
Trident Staff

What started out as a normal work week at the Halifax & Region Military Family Resource Centre changed dramatically recently as people from Pennsylvania began calling, looking for information on getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

First one, then two calls came in, and by the end of the day on February 24, the centre had answered more than 200 calls from Pennsylvania residents dialing what they thought was a local vaccine information line.

Phone lines were off the hook at the HR MFRC recently after American callers were mistakingly given the centre’s phone number as a COVID-19 vaccine information line.

“It was an incredibly busy day,” said Sarah-Jean Mannette, public relations co-ordinator at the centre. “Our toll-free number was given out in error. We have our local number and a toll-free number: 1-888-753-8827. The Pennsylvania folks should have been giving out a 1-800 number but they gave out a 1-888 number — our toll-free number — instead.”

As the first calls came in, staff at H&R MFRC were confused, but as the pattern began to emerge, they asked the callers for more information to try to understand the source of the error.

“The staff were trying to figure out what was going on, but our main concern was that people couldn’t get a hold of us—just as staff would get off one call and put down the phone, they’d have to take another call”, Mannette said.

The centre’s registration process for programs is all online at present but it was the other, often urgent, calls staff at the centre were concerned about, she added.

“It’s important for us that people can call us when they need our help—if they need emergency childcare or a referral to mental health services or to speak with the Padre. We were worried that people might not be able to get those referrals because our phone lines were jammed.”

As staff at the centre tried to figure out how the mix-up occurred, a post went up on the H&R MFRC’s Facebook page to let the community know they might have trouble getting through on the phone lines.

“Our staff were asking the people calling about vaccines how they got the number and where they were from,” Mannette said. “The number had been on radio stations as well so the people I work with called the government in Pennsylvania and tried to reach out to the radio stations to let them know about the error. It wasn’t easy as once information is out there, it’s out there.”

Although it was an extremely busy day for staff at the centre, most of the callers were understanding and there were some happy conversations as people on the other end of the line learned they were talking with someone in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Those who know this place and had been here before were saying ‘Oh, I love Canada, I love Nova Scotia’ and they’d chat about it for a bit,” Mannette laughed. “We’re Maritimers through and through, it doesn’t really matter why you’re calling us, we’ll give you the best service we can.”